There is an Arabic saying that goes: If you are departing, do as much damage as you can. And for those few of my readers who speak Arabic, "Ya rayeh, katter bil fadhayeh!"
On Nov 23, President Saleh signed a power transfer deal to give up power after 33 years, under the watchful eyes of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, his close ally for decades, and a large bevy of Gulf royals as well as several members of the cabinet and of the opposition, some of whom I happen to know personally.
While the representatives of the government and of the opposition signed in glum seriousness, Saleh appeared to smile and joke throughout the process of signing his documents. He had every reason to be so cheerful. Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime was living on borrowed time anyway, but because he has been doing the bidding of the Americans and the Saudis, he was given a reward none of the other deposed dictators could dream of. Tunisia's Ben Ali had to flee the country with a few bars of gold, again to Saudi Arabia; Mubarak lost his absolute rule within days of the uprising on the Egyptian streets; Gaddafi and one son were apparently summarily executed shortly after capture, and Saif is likely to be hanged after a Saddam-style trial in Libya. Thus, by comparison, Saleh has received a very sweet deal indeed. Not only that but his loyal supporters, whether sons or nephews, or whether ministers of information or foreign affairs or interior, will be covered by the same immunity clause.
So, what is that going to say to Bashshar al-Asad of Syria? Should he not also be offered the same level and extent of immunity, despite the 1,500 deaths caused by his security service and army, also lead by a family member, this time his brother? And what about the next Arab or non-Arab tyrant that kills his people? It is clear that those who paid with life and limb, i.e. the students in Change Square in Sanaa and the cities of Taiz and Aden, are not happy about the way they were betrayed, not only by Saudi Arabia, which was not surprising, but also by the opposition, as represented, among others by Mohammed Salem Basindwah, a leader of the opposition, and a friend of my own family.
The powers retained by the president over the transitional period have not been spelt out in the agreement, and thus it would be very difficult to predict what will happen in the next month or so, but I will dare predict what is likely to happen: President Saleh used his post-signature defiant speech to point a finger at those unknowns who tried to assassinate him, blaming outsiders, bringing hate from the West, as he put it, even mentioning Zionists in the process! He will return to Sanaa very triumphant, and with zero risk of being accountable, irrespective of what the small print of the Riyad agreement might say, he will rule Yemen with unprecedented brutality, covered by total impunity. His suspected enemies will be assassinated or will disappear. His son Brigadier General Ahmad Saleh, commander of Yemen's Republican Guards, and nephew General Yahya M. Abdullah Saleh, director of the counter-terrorism unit will be given a carte blanche to arm themselves to the teeth, and to annihilate any armed opposition. They will seek to remain in their current positions in any future government, and from a position of military superiority, will try to extract such concessions. That is not to say that Saleh will re-establish his dictatorship, but he will have taken the revenge he has been seeking since the assassination attempt.
During the remainder of his rule, he will move huge amounts of wealth to his next country of refuge, almost certainly one or more of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, as well as Western banks and American real estate. His inner circle will be moving large amounts of U.S. dollars in large suitcases, and gold bars in diplomatic bags, to Dubai and Kuwait and Jeddah. This has already been reported, and I have learnt of such huge transfers by two of his ministers. Some in his inner circle already have Canadian, American and European passports, which will make it easy to leave Yemen days before the 30 day limit, just as happened with the relatives of Ben Ali of Tunisia, moving to Montreal in Canada.
What is less obvious is what will happen to Ahmad Saleh, who was reported to have acquired a lot of real estate in the U.S. He can use his fire power to stay in power. But his fate will depend on the upcoming elections. If the people return a government which is bent on prosecuting him, as is happening with Saif Al Islam Gaddafi in Libya, he will escape just before any action is taken against him. He might also decide to stay outside the country during election week, but return to his troops and influence if he can cut a deal with the new government. Either way, a very affluent future awaits him.
Between now and Christmas, watch Sanaa Airport for rapidly increasing activity, especially of private jets carrying special gifts from Santa, heading out of Yemen!